Animadversions of a Geezer-in-training

Neil Gaiman's Lucifer is a debonnaire who, en route to quitting the "Lord of Hell" gig and becoming a lounge-pianist, quotes himself, as depicted in John Milton's Paradise Lost: "Better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven."

Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy of novels in which dark matter, known to the main character, Lyra, as dust, is the stuff of consciousness and reacts to human moods. He calls the trilogy His Dark Materials out of a line from Milton's Paradise Lost.

William Styron, in writing a tale of the private hell that is living with, and, in some sense, dying of, depression, chose the title Darkness Visible, which phrase Milton coined to describe the environment of Hell, lacking the light of the Sun (i.e. Jesus and pals), but in which sight was still possible.

The first of these examples is a comic book; the second is a set of children's novels; the third is a memoir. Two are from the 90s, one is from the 50s. Two are from Englishmen, one, an American. What do these disparate episodes in the chronicles of literature have in common? They all refer to the first twenty percent of Milton's supposedly indispensable literary cornerstone.

Some books are meant to be read; others are meant to be cited in some convoluted process of literary belt-notching. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English dictionary (so we know he could read relentlessly dull tracts of data for long periods of time) famously said Paradise Lost is too long. What chance do the rest of us have?

Art for art's sake is a wonderful concept. It yielded us Kafka's Metamorphosis; it yielded us Picasso's cubist period (or maybe that was unrelated--a simpler explanation is that his demanding social life led him naturally to see women with their legs above their heads). Art for art's sake has brought us wonders; but it can get you killed. Ulysses by the inimitable James Joyce (incidentally, how many Irish can win the Nobel Prize, really? It's a tiny island! More Irish have won than exist!) is considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. How do we know that? The only two people who've read it are Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Nabokov--both capricious assholes who shouldn't be trusted. Joyce's own wife Nora didn't read either of his two enormous novels. I'm surprised even the Nobel committee managed to do so--unless they didn't award him the Nobel prize, but surrendered it to him while they were still on page 350.

The only tract I've ever read making reference to sections of Paradise Lost past book 3 was by David Scott Kastan--who edited the edition of which I read the first three books.

I know tenure is important...but it seems to me that a great amount of what writers write is written expressly for the game of Pong, whereby critics and writers endlessly bounce the same obtuse, white ball, and death to him who allows that ball out of sight--what if an illiterate read it?!

Arnold Schoenberg (whose music--fuck you--I like) said something to the effect (and I'm quoting a glanced-at source from memory, so bear with my inaccuracy) that no art is universally appreciated. This artwork appeals to this group, that artwork appeals to that group. We call it pandering to write a book "for the masses," i.e., a book designed to appeal to all groups. But shouldn't it be pandering, shouldn't it be recognized for the shameless attempt to build one's reputation we know it to be, to write a book intended for no group at all?
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